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Australian states impose fines to limit public gatherings

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SYDNEY : Australian officials will use fines and the threat of jail to enforce a new rule limiting public gatherings to two people, as the country's coronavirus infection rate slowed but the death toll crept higher.

New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, the country's two most populous states, introduced the penalties from midnight yesterday to enforce national rules set by the federal government on Sunday.

Australia is strengthening limited contact rules for the public as it seeks to capitalise on a slowdown in the growth of new coronavirus cases.

Officials said the rate of new infections has halved in the past week under existing restrictions on movement to about 4,200 people nationally, while the death toll rose to 17.

"It is only in exceptional circumstances that you should leave home," New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said in Sydney. "We will get through this. We are in a position now which allows us to control the spread as much as possible."

New South Wales and Victoria will fine people between A$1,000 (S$875) and A$1,600 for breaching the rules. In NSW, people could also face six months' jail.

Australia's state and federal leaders have formed an emergency Cabinet to hammer out the coronavirus response as many of the social containment measures require state-level enforcement.

That has led to often contradictory messaging for the public on issues such as whether schools should remain open.

Meanwhile, officials carried out new requirements that Australians returning home by plane be immediately taken into monitored quarantine in hotels or other facilities for 14 days.

Australia's borders are closed to all but returning citizens and permanent residents.

In Western Australia state, hundreds of people were due to be taken from the Vasco da Gama cruise ship to Rottnest Island, a tourist destination near Perth, or hotels near the state capital of Perth for quarantine, ship owner Cruise & Maritime Voyages said. - REUTERS